Winter Break has been a great time for rejuvenation. I realize I’ve been silent for a while, but I don’t think I recognized that before the break. I’ve been so involved in so many projects that feel relevant and valuable both at work and at home. So it wasn’t until we had a break that I realized I haven’t been sharing what I’ve learned or done.
I’m as excited as ever about microcredentials, both for educators and for students. Educator microcredentials have been up and running in Utah for several years now. You can learn more at USBE MIDAS. Student microcredentials are in pioneering territory, and I’m happy to be involved in the pioneering process! Never considered student microcredentials? This article from Harvard Graduate School of Education gives a great overview of the vision and potential for students using microcredentials in personalized, competency-based learning: Badges Instead of Grades | Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Today’s post isn’t really about microcredentials, though. It’s about the creative power of taking a break, trying new challenges, looking at things through a different lens, and finding joy in the process.
I created the dress form exactly as described by the pattern, but I modified the method for creating a stand, which took some creative engineering on the inside, and I’m happy with the result. I’ve used both draping and flat-pattern methods to design for the half-scale form, and I recommend the half-scale slopers also available from GrowYourOwnClothes.
I made two of the dress forms (one for design and one for display) near the end of October, and I’ve been creating seasonal outfits for the form to wear. One form stays at home where I can use it for draping and fitting. The other sits on my desk at work, where I can show off my creations. I know that sounds vain, and it probably is.
At the same time, the engineering, problem-solving, and artistry that go into these types of creative projects are a matter of wellness for me. I honestly believe that creativity has a healing power. Having the finished products where I can see them makes me joyful and reminds me that I can face creative challenges head-on. That’s a support I can use at work.
During the holiday break, I pushed myself to try some complex techniques with limited resources. So far, I haven’t purchased anything for my outfits. I’m only using scraps and items I already have in my stash. That’s one of my favorite things about the January outfit.
The dress is made from the leftovers of a pair of pants I had cut out for work. The blue fabric for the coat is what was left from the hem of a ball gown I cut off to get the right length for my daughter when she attended Winter Ball in 2021. I cut the individual coat pieces a bit large so that I could quilt them, and then I lined and trimmed the coat with fake fur and trim someone had donated to me. Favorite details? This coat has a separating zipper and functional, in-seam pockets.
This was obviously a bit of a time-consuming project. I know it seems extravagant to blind-hem a dress that will never be worn by a human. I know it seems inefficient to hand-stitch along the coat trim, where the zipper foot would not go in tight enough. Yet these are the types of details I love.
It’s ok to put quality effort into projects that bring joy.
I hope that in 2023 you will allow yourself to feel the healing power of creativity. I also hope you will offer yourself the joy that comes from completing challenging projects. Happy New Year to you!
What are the combined roles of support and collaboration in education?
If you are a teacher, I hope you have had the experience of working with other teachers in an effective Professional Learning Community. PLC’s can reduce the workload for teachers while increasing student success. Teachers often feel like they must be responsible to plan every lesson, individually track every student’s progress, and single-handedly create every assessment. Teachers who work together can set aside teacher burdens and see (and meet) more student needs.
Some PLC’s are more effective than others. If you are working in a less effective PLC, what would make it better?
How do your administrators and district personnel support you? Granted, you may also have had administrators and district staff you feel are less effective, but truly their role is support. Have you taken the time to get to know what they do? Have you communicated with them your needs? Do you know how and where they can provide support?
I am working in a new role this year. I will still be teaching half-time, and I’m so happy that I still get to spend a portion of my time with students. I’ll also be working in the district half-time, helping to build and support the Utah Microcredentials program. If you don’t yet know about microcredentials, I hope you will take some time to learn about them.
Microcredentials are personalized, competency-based professional development for teachers. Work at your own pace, not checking off assignments, but submitting evidence of competency in your classroom. Utah State is working to build teacher endorsements through microcredentials. Several endorsement areas are already available with microcredentials, and the goal is that all endorsements will eventually be available with microcredentials.
This will be a huge benefit to teachers like me, who have changed subject matter and age groups over the years and have had to get new endorsements through university programs for every subject I am licensed to teach. As a full-time teacher, working toward endorsements in a university program can be overwhelming! I’m excited to be able to support teachers who want to work on endorsements as a natural by-product of what they are already doing, without having to enroll in yet another university, pay high tuition costs, and figure out how to attend classes and teach at the same time.
As you get to know me, you’ll learn that I find connections to my work everywhere I go, even on vacation.
Mr. Coray and I were happy to be able to attend the Utah Shakespeare Festival at the end of July. For those who haven’t had the chance to attend, the Shakespeare Festival includes high-quality productions of a variety of types of plays, but you can also attend free events and seminars.
We had tickets to see “Clue,” which was more fun than the movie, with stronger female characters, more board-game references, more physical humor, more endings, and even athletics and acrobatics. The actors were wonderful.
My favorite part of the festival, though, was the costume seminar with Sarah McCarroll, Wardrobe Supervisor and Costume Manager. I loved the insider details about the costumes, and Sarah had a delightful sense of humor. I took notes and even asked her afterward if I could quote her.
Much of what Sarah said felt connected to what I do, not only because I love costumes and fashion design, but because it relates to education.
Sarah talked about how acting is a job with a high cognitive load. There’s just so much to remember! Sarah can reduce the cognitive load for the actors by making sure they never have to give a thought to the next costume. She is simply waiting in the wings with the next costume ready to go. She said, “My job is to give the actors the tools to do what they need to do.”
Teaching is another job with a high cognitive load. Trying to remember everything that has to be done is intense! As teachers, we can provide similar support to each other by collaborating on lesson plans and brainstorming solutions to problems together. Administrators, support personnel, and district employees can also ensure that teachers have resources in place so that they don’t have to carry the entire burden of teaching alone.
People who sew tend to fall into two categories—those who create clothing, and those who quilt. Both require a specific skill set, and most people who sew focus on one or the other. Creating clothing requires the ability to get a good fit with quality construction. It’s highly technical and rarely cost-effective in a world of fast fashion. Some people call it a dying art. For that reason, it’s not easy to find quality fabrics for clothing.
Hobbyist quilters, on the other hand, are common. Local fabric stores cater to them with a large variety of colorful prints. When asked about sourcing fabric for costumes, Sarah said, “Here in Cedar City, we have JoAnn’s. JoAnn’s has some lovely quilters’ cottons.” Then, gesturing to a rack of costumes she added, “You don’t see any of those here.”
Often teachers don’t have something given to them easily ready-made. Effective lesson planning requires technical skill. It’s hard work. And it turns out best when we source quality materials and use effective teaching techniques.
Sarah showed us the lining and boning on the inside of one of the actress’s dresses. She explained that the costumes have to last the season, show after show every day, which means that the costumes must be just as beautiful on the inside as on the outside.
Lesson plans that look easy and beautiful on the outside require significant planning and quality strategies on the inside. Again, effective collaboration makes this task easier.
When asked about the authenticity of the costumes, Sarah told us that they strive for historical accuracy, except in the case of the closures. The festival uses giant parka zippers in the backs of the dresses for quick costume changes. She told us that at the beginning of the season, there are costume changes they think they’ll never get done in time. “After a few weeks,” she joked, “We can do an 18-second costume change with enough time left over for a ham sandwich.”
Teaching is like this too. I remember early on in my teaching career thinking that I would never be able to juggle everything I needed to do at once, including presenting material, managing behaviors, documenting problems, watching for and providing feedback, and fully engaging students. Little by little, things like classroom management come to be second nature, and teaching becomes more comfortable. If you are a new teacher, go easy on yourself as the pieces come together. You’re learning, and you’ll get there!
I was so excited about Sarah’s presentation that I made a collage to help me remember the ideas that came with her words. As a teacher, I hope I continue to collaborate with and provide support for teachers around me. As a district employee, I also want to provide support that makes teachers’ jobs easier.
If you’re a teacher, I hope I can help reduce your cognitive load by sharing ideas that will help you feel like you don’t have to worry about the next costume. It will simply be waiting in the wings, ready to go.
Several colleagues from work recently visited New Orleans for training. And that got me thinking about Louisiana.
I come by my occasional use of “Y’all” honestly. It’s a part of my family history. Last summer we traced that history back to Louisiana, from New Orleans up the Mississippi River, to where my great grandmother spent her childhood. She was born in a flood year in a little house next to the river. A few years after her birth, that little house washed off the blocks into the river and the family was forced to move.
Their new home was on a plantation where they had servants, and, in the early 1900’s, my great grandma grew up with views about separation between white and black people. She told my dad she believed in “separate but equal”—and she truly meant equal. My dad did his best to convince her that separate never was and never would be equal.
Great Grandma’s father died when she was still young. The family eventually lost the plantation and relocated again.
I don’t remember my great grandmother, but I was close to her husband, my great grandfather. I adored him. My father adored him. I knew that Great Grandpa occasionally used racial slang my parents found unacceptable, and which we were never to use. I never heard my grandfather speak in a way that meant harm. His language came from his culture. I believe that if he lived now, he would have learned how to leave that language behind. He had a generous heart, and he loved people.
I believe that my great grandmother, who taught migrant children in a classroom near the border of Texas and Mexico, would now open up her classroom, and her heart, to any student of any color, background, or ability level.
People can change, and that’s the best I can hope for anyone.
People have a better chance of change when we can have open, productive dialogue about what is and has been hurtful and what can bring about healing.
Earlier this year, I had someone I respect tell me that the only problem with race is that we keep talking about it, and if we want to solve problems with race, we need to stop talking about it and just be color blind.
There was a time in my life when I naively believed that racial strife in America was a thing of the past. I have always been blessed to live around family members and friends from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I had college roommates from all over the world. I’m fortunate to have been accepted by friends from a variety of nationalities.
I remember a night in college when I sat down with roommates from Japan, and we exchanged stories about our grandfathers who served on opposite sides during World War II. My roommates had heard their grandfathers talk about the devastation caused by the bomb. We had an open, honest conversation, and our respect for each other grew.
Perhaps I thought that open, positive conversations were the norm. You don’t know what you don’t know.
I didn’t know until our family became a multi-ethnic family through the miracle and gift of adoption. And then I knew. Then we faced unexpected micro-aggressions connected to race.
The truth is that I still don’t know what I still don’t know. I can’t imagine what struggles some people face solely because of the color of their skin, their neighborhood, or a perceived disability. The only way I can learn is through open dialogue. I am so thankful when others are willing to be vulnerable enough to share their stories with me. I do the best I can to listen and to ask how I can support.
Acknowledging injustices and atrocities of the past does not require me to accept the burden of guilt. Rather, it invites me to seek change to end injustice and inequality now. It gives me the opportunity to be more fully aware of the needs of fellow travelers on Earth.
During my teacher training I had a class on social justice in education. We were required to memorize the professor’s definition of social justice so that we could write it on our end-of-semester test. Here’s his definition:
“Social Justice is the ability to pedagogically execute fair and equitable classroom practices that result in opportunity, access, and democratic, participatory learning.”
Yeah. The vocabulary is intense.
Here’s what it means to me. Social justice means inclusion. It means giving equitable opportunities to every student, regardless of their language, culture, background, abilities, or disabilities. It goes beyond that too. It means expressing interest when a student shares something about their culture that is different from mine. Maybe that means asking them to tell me more about their holiday and how they celebrate. Maybe that means asking what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable. Maybe that means allowing myself to be vulnerable. Doing so lets me help every student feel safe, respected, and honored in my classroom. That’s my definition of social justice.
A little over a year ago I was walking around a souvenir shop in Natchez, Mississippi, when a man at the counter asked with the slowest Southern drawl I had ever heard, “Do y’all wanna buy some praw-leans?” His voice had almost a magical quality, as if to say, “There’s nowhere to go—not a care in the world. Time will stop for you in this moment.” I remembered my mom telling me that pralines were my grandma’s favorite treat, and I couldn’t resist.
I love authentic representations of culture, and sometimes I have a need to re-create the authenticity I have found in other cultures by cooking their food. Making food helps me feel connected to people.
I made “praw-leans” this Saturday afternoon as I thought about Louisiana, my family history, and social justice. I thought about social justice as I stirred and stirred and watched the candy thermometer rise. I thought about authenticity and inclusion and the sweetness of the result.
And all of that fused into the finished product.
There are invitations all around us—voices beckoning us to slow down, to stop and see people for who they really are; to put ourselves in their shoes, to break down barriers and to lift those who are tired of the battle. We have both the power and the opportunity to change time in this moment.
I had lunch with a dear friend this week. We’ve known each other since junior high and have shared experiences ranging from editing our student high-school literary magazine, to attempting to sleep under the stars at church youth camp in what turned out to be a night of downpour and lightning, to helping our own children navigate school in spite of barriers and special circumstances.
Our careers have taken roundabout pathways, and we have both found our passion in teaching—especially in research-based, effective pedagogy.
Over lunch we started talking about Universal Design for Learning. I love this topic and wasn’t surprised to find that my friend had made it the topic of her master’s thesis!
What is Universal Design for Learning?
It’s easiest to understand if you think first about Universal Design for architecture. Remember the days before wheelchair ramps were readily available? Doors were not automatic. It was difficult for anyone with physical limitations to get where they needed to be.
The Americans with Disabilities Act changed things for the better. Older buildings had to be retrofitted with wheelchair access, automatic doors, etc. But sometimes that meant adding a wheelchair ramp on the back side of the building! Not very inviting to someone in a wheelchair.
Newer buildings are built with Universal Design—an idea that includes everyone and gives everyone equal access to a building and its amenities. Architects and interior designers plan from the start so that anyone, no matter their age or physical limitations, can equitably use a building. Ramps, where needed, are incorporated into main, front walkways. Doors are automatic. Sinks and paper towels are also automatic.
Once put in place, these accommodations have added benefits beyond social justice and inclusion. For example, automated doors and sinks limit the spread of germs.
Universal Design for Learning is also inclusive. As the architect of my lesson plans, I can predict in advance what types of needs I will be trying to meet in my classroom. I know before I ever see my rolls that in a class of 35 students, I am likely to have about 4 students with an IEP, about 5 students with a 504 plan, 1-2 English language learners (that number would be higher in other schools where I have worked), and 1-2 students with food allergies (which is important, because I teach foods units). I will have kinesthetic learners, learners who don’t want to work with peers, and learners who need creative challenges, among others.
Because I can predict the types of students I will have in my classroom, I can plan beforehand to meet all their needs. I can offer accommodations to all students that help them feel safe, respected, and honored in my classroom. Students who don’t need or want accommodations don’t have to use them, but for those who need them, they never have to ask. These accommodations affect both the classroom environment and my lesson planning.
Flexible seating is one small step in classroom environment for Universal Design. Personalized Learning with lots of choice is important in lesson planning. Activities with a variety of ways both to access information and to demonstrate learning include all students.
Thinking in terms of Universal Design sounds at first like it makes my job more complicated, but in the long run, it saves me a lot of time and stress. My students are happier because they feel understood. They are more likely to be on task and engaged and less likely to exhibit behavioral problems.
I loved having lunch with my friend this week, not only because it’s great to catch up, but also because of the way we can provide positive support for each other as teachers. This is a valuable friendship to me.
I’ve noticed something over the last year when I’m on social media. Almost every time I’m scrolling through a feed, I see articles with titles like, “Teachers are Leaving Schools in Large Numbers,” and “Teacher Shortage Crisis Deepens.” Some of the titles hint at toxic positivity in schools or point to the things that are exhausting teachers.
And guess what?! I don’t need someone to point out the flaws in education. I think most teachers can figure out on their own what is sending them home each night exhausted. We know why we went into teaching. We know why we love it. We know when it’s hard. And it is hard.
Seeing article after article about why teachers are leaving can have a detrimental effect on teachers and the teaching profession. It sends this message to teachers: “Oh, people are getting out? Maybe I should look at getting out too.” That’s not a productive message to send.
There are a few things that keep me going as a teacher. One is having the opportunity to collaborate with other strong teachers. When we get together and share solutions, I feel like I can go back to my classroom better equipped to do what I need to do.
Another thing that keeps me going is the kids. I can see when I’m doing good for them, and it makes me happy. A few times every year, I get thank-you notes with sincere and specific messages. Sometimes they come from students and sometimes they come from parents. I keep those notes and refer to them when I need a boost.
I’m fortunate to have supportive administrators and good friends in education. I believe in what I do.
No doubt legislators could do more to support teachers and keep them in the classroom. Increase pay and benefits. Decrease class size and workloads. Avoid legislation that overburdens teachers.
The fact is that if nothing happens, there will not be effective and well-trained teachers in our children’s futures.
Meanwhile, I have a request for those of you writing articles about education.
Give me more positive education articles and stories to read about.
I remember sitting in a class for pre-service teachers when the head of student teaching asked us this question: “What do teachers dream?” Each of us in the class threw out our best, most sparkly teacher dreams: “I want to touch young lives.” “I want to have a big impact, especially on marginalized populations.” “I want to share content I’m passionate about.” Our list was optimistic and focused on shaping the future. The professor listened patiently, nodded, smiled, and then said, “What I meant to ask was, what do teachers dream about?”
Ask any teacher, and you’ll find that teacher dreams are outlandish, uncomfortable, and even frightening! Mr. Coray finds himself teaching in an L-shaped room where he can only see the front half of the class but not the students in the part of the classroom that faces the corner. Teachers dream of obstacles that prevent them from attending class or keep them from being on time. They dream of unannounced observations when things are crazy in the classroom. They dream of teaching in their underwear. They dream of being expected to present stellar lessons in spite of the impossible. Leave out the underwear nightmare, and many teacher dreams have truth on some level, which may be why they are so memorable and so haunting. Mr. Coray does not have an L-shaped room, but many CTE teachers have situations where some students are working in a lab while others are working in a classroom. Covid, quarantines, and other health-related issues may have prevented us from being with our students when we wanted to be there. Sometimes we feel like we have to make the difficult choice between meeting our own health needs and being present in class every day for our students. Observations rarely occur during our best teaching moments. As the list of demands on our time grows, we do find ourselves doing the impossible. No wonder our minds play out our fears in our sleep!
Yet sometimes I think our minds are simply working on solutions. I had been waking up from teacher nightmares for a few days straight as I planned some new lessons I’ll implement in the fall. As part of a team effort with the other CCA teachers in my school to strengthen our CCA curriculum, I decided to take on a couple of areas I haven’t taught before. I want those areas to be just as hands-on, dynamic, and personalized as the rest of my curriculum, and I wasn’t sure what direction to take things.
One early morning my teacher dreams were especially intense. I was teaching 3rd grade, which just happens to be one grade I have not taught in real life. We were supposed to be leaving on a field trip. I was wondering if we were really going to be able to make it on the train all the way across the Canadian border and back as planned before the end of the school day, and I suddenly realized that I hadn’t packed myself a sack lunch as I should have. That meant going from room to room in the school asking if anyone had any bread or peanut butter I could borrow. All the while, a third-grade teacher from my former school, and one I greatly respect, was following me around and asking me questions that all started with, “Don’t you think you should. . . .” I knew that I had left my own third-grade class unattended, and I felt apprehensive about that. And I kept running into my principal from the junior high where I currently teach. He is one of the most supportive administrators I have ever had, and in my dream, I didn’t feel he was judging me, but I was conscious that he would be disappointed if he knew I had left my class alone.
Crazy as that dream was, when I awoke, I knew exactly how to personalize the unit I was working on and turn it into a project, mostly by pulling in ideas from projects I have already done with students in the past. Having a source to draw from gave me a starting place. I put together that unit, and I haven’t been bothered by teacher dreams for a couple of weeks.
No matter where you are on the path to personalized learning or project-based learning, there has to be a starting place somewhere, and maybe even more than one starting place. There’s no shame in being at a starting point, and it’s ok to go through that door slowly. I hope that when you come to a door that opens to opportunity, you don’t pass it by in favor of a more familiar path.
Last week I promised to give more ideas in answer to the question, “What would you say to teachers who feel that personalized learning is ‘just one more thing’?”
First, I think it’s important to validate teachers’ feelings of exhaustion. In the last two years, we have been asked to do more than ever—to be more creative, more resilient, more high-tech, more compassionate—really to do more of the impossible.
Second, I think it’s ok to recognize that some teachers are not ready. Let them come to the door on their own timeframe.
However, many teachers are ready to take on personalized, competency-based learning, project-based learning, or a combination of PCBL and PBL. How can we make these possibilities feasible without burning out talented teachers who are already doing their best?
This is an exciting problem to dream about. Here are just a few ideas:
At the district level we need people who are connected to effective PCBL and PBL that is happening in classrooms within the district. Some of the best professional development I have ever attended has been taking the opportunity to visit other classrooms with district leaders who knew where to see what I was hoping to implement and to observe. I may not adopt every practice or project I see, but I can take back what works for me and adapt it for my classroom. This means having the opportunity for paid substitutes and time away from the classroom for teacher observations.
When small groups of teachers move successfully and excitedly toward PCBL in a school, other teachers will follow. Administrators can look for those small groups who will take initial steps forward and can provide resources and support at the school level. This could include the offer of time to observe in classrooms where PCBL is the norm. It could also include other paid time for professional development. Or it could include access to books or workshops geared toward PCBL and/or PBL. Most of all, it could include paid time and the opportunity to collaborate.
Collaboration could be the biggest key to unlocking our PCBL future. In CTE, we teach 21st-century workplace skills—communication, collaboration, teamwork, etc. Yet teachers often work in isolation, each creating their own lessons or versions of lessons. This independent creation and re-creation of the wheel is part of what exhausts us. To be fair, even when we’re handed lessons out of a box, it takes hours and hours to become familiar enough with what we’ve been given to be able to present it to others in meaningful ways. But what if we didn’t have to re-create what has already been done? What if we had sources to pull from—sources that gave us strong starting places or even a head start? What if we could all rely on team members to help make our jobs easier rather than harder?
Building effective collaborative teams can be a challenge. I’ve seen this happen in our district, where we’re given time to collaborate and a content team to collaborate with, and every meeting is the same conversation as the last meeting, none of which has to do with PCBL. Yet I’ve worked with non-assigned, informal teams that have energized me and given me rocket-booster ideas for my projects. This year I ate lunch with English teachers, art teachers, and a special ed teacher. We all looked at issues from different angles, but because we shared students, we were able to help each other find useful solutions when needed.
After presenting about a foods project I do with my classes, the Spanish immersion teacher approached me to ask if I would be willing to extend the project so that shared students could learn relevant Spanish vocabulary within the framework of my project. How powerful is that? What if we could step out of our isolated boxes and figure out how to help each other succeed at the common goal of PCBL?
I love to create projects. Wrapping my brain around a project energizes me from first combing through the standards to figuring out assessments and grading to building activities in between. I know not everyone feels the way I do, but I am happy to brainstorm with anyone who wants to brainstorm. I would love to build, expand, and extend my own projects with cross-curricular activities happening in multiple classrooms. What if my efforts at teaching sustainability and helping students create “sustainability projects” were echoed in science classes? What if students wrote about their research and project results in their English classes? What if they had to perform grade-level math calculations to solve problems connected with their projects?
Organized, intentional collaboration could supercharge our PCBL efforts.
Sandwiches might be the most versatile food on the planet—easy to personalize. Start with the bread, for example. Do you want white bread, wheat bread, sourdough, focaccia, flatbread, pita bread, rye bread, or even a nice wrap? Maybe you’ve decided on the no-bread version. There are endless combinations of breads, veggies, meats, cheeses, and condiments. Each sandwich can be exactly tailored to the person eating it.
Projects are like sandwiches—easily customized. What are some other benefits of project-based learning? Besides personalization, projects allow for inclusion. I’ve seen students who normally struggle in school but who can thrive when a project is part of the equation. Projects increase engagement and foster collaboration and teamwork, creativity, critical thinking, and other essential 21st-century workplace skills, all while building student self-efficacy.
I’ve heard of several stumbling blocks or misconceptions connected with projects, and I’d like to address a few. First is that everyone completes the same type of project or creates the same type of product. If everyone ends up with the same or similar results at the end, that’s a recipe, not a project. Second—projects must be done individually. While projects can be done individually, they offer excellent opportunities for teamwork and collaboration. Teachers can grade individually as teams of students complete their work. Some worry that projects are difficult to grade, especially when each completed project or product may be different. Projects are not so hard to grade when there is a strong and clear rubric in place. Let students know exactly what elements you are looking for. You will be able to see those elements in a successful project no matter what form the final product takes. That might mean a mindset shift if you are used to grading with points—2 points for a solid introduction and thesis, 2 points for correct spelling and grammar, 2 points for turning in everything on time, etc. Most likely, the points aren’t really telling you what you want to know. Does the project meet the standards? Set basic criteria and let the students choose how to meet those criteria. Finally, I hear teachers say, “I teach a unit, and then we do a project at the end.” I find that my projects are far more successful and engaging when they are tightly woven into the unit. Projects may occur at the end (although they don’t have to), but the final product can’t really be separated from the whole, and all along, I’m letting students know how their product is connected to what we are doing and what we are learning.
What are the building blocks of effective, personalized, project-based learning? First, start with objectives connected to standards, and think about this carefully. You can get the most bang for your buck if you can incorporate multiple standards and objectives into one project. That should become clear as we look at the other building blocks, and it might be helpful to go back to our sandwich analogy. Think of your standards and objectives as the bun or the bread, and don’t go keto on this one! Knowing what standards you’re including is essential for you and for your students.
The other building blocks have no prescribed order. You can include them as you feel best and in the order that makes the most sense to you. I find it helpful to come up with a driving question or a big problem. Compare your problem to the onions on the sandwich. Does slicing those onions make you cry? That’s a sensation you notice. Be aware when something bothers you in your community or society at large. Usually, the ideas for the problems come to me while I’m away from school, maybe watching news, but more often just talking to friends or family, taking a walk, reading a book, or visiting a museum or local business. Students get more engaged in a project when it is connected to a real-world problem.
Next, you’ll want to include skill-building activities into the project or unit. This is where you bring in your standards and objectives. Compare skill-building activities to the lettuce. You can have as many lettuce leaves on your sandwich as you want. What skills do students need to have to be able to meet State or district standards and complete their project? Those skills can be incorporated at different times and on different days over the course of an 8-12-day project.
Offer students an opportunity for a “dry run.” I think of this one as the cheese on the sandwich. You could probably get by without it, but just as cheese adds unique flavor, a dry run is helpful in showing you whether the students have the skills they need to complete their project. For example, if their project is related to using the foods lab, it’s helpful to have them do a simple foods lab before completing their larger project so that I know that they know how to find their equipment, follow procedures, etc. If their project is more academic, or traditionally academic, an activity like a storyboard makes an excellent dry run. Be specific about using the same elements in the storyboard that they will use in their final project. Tell them exactly what you are looking for. You could even use a similar rubric to the project. Have them draw pictures and write text on a storyboard matching the content they will include in their project. You can see very quickly whether they have the elements you are looking for, and you can give feedback that will allow them to adjust for their final project before they spend too much time on it.
Projects are the meat of the sandwich, the heart of the unit. For full-strength project-based learning, every student or team will choose their own way to show proficiency with the standards and objectives. You might offer suggestions such as creating a video/commercial, marketing campaign, podcast, song, Power Point, children’s picture book or board game, Minecraft world, or formal letters to business leaders or legislators, etc. Then let students choose their product. Set parameters so that the product will meet the standards and be accessible to you. For example, I tell my students that if they build a Minecraft world, they must also walk me through their Minecraft world and show me all their signposts along the way. I don’t live in that world and won’t find the information on my own. Often when I offer suggestions, students will come to me with their own idea. If their idea meets the parameters, I know it will work, and that’s when things get exciting, because I know the students are taking ownership of their learning.
Presentation to an authentic audience: This is your tomatoes, and there are no rotten tomatoes here! Sometimes presenting to peers is enough. Sometimes you can bring in other classes, school leaders, or community members who could make decisions based on the project. Students are more engaged when they know that an authentic audience will view their work. They should also know that it’s ok if the project doesn’t turn out exactly as planned. I think it’s helpful to talk to students about engineering design, so that they recognize that having to readjust, revise, and sometimes start over is a part of the process.
Student self-reflection builds growth. If you’ve ever had a sandwich without any condiments, you know how bland that can be. You’ll eat the sandwich, but you don’t enjoy it. Giving students a chance to self-reflect adds flavor and improves the texture. Students benefit from meaningful opportunities to reflect on their growth and discuss what they would improve in the future.
How do I use these building blocks in a real classroom setting? I’ll give two examples from my CTE classes and then I want to share an example from Mr. Coray’s classroom (yes, my husband is also a teacher). CTE classes are made for project-based learning, but projects may seem less intuitive in traditionally academic settings, which is why I will include the third example.
“The Big Event” is a 7-day unit or project I do with my college and career awareness classes in 7th grade. If you teach CCA, you can find this unit on the Canvas commons, because I shared it as part of our FCS State Conference a few years back. Day 1 of the project is called “medical mysteries.” I give each of 8 teams a list of symptoms for a fictional family member. Teams research the symptoms (one of our standards is using relevant and credible sources) to try to find a diagnosis. We talk about using relevant and credible websites for research, and the students start searching. I give them feedback, letting them know if they are off track, and they can ask me questions to get back on track. By the end of the class period, teams have found 8 different diagnoses and learned about the various medical professionals who would diagnose and treat those diagnoses. As they compare what they have learned, they are able to identify what each of these 8 diagnoses have in common—they are all connected to diet.
That sets us up for the next class period when students learn about the role of a dietician, MyPlate standards, and research what their fictional family member could eat and what that family member should avoid. Over the next several days, students learn about food safety, foods lab procedures and expectations, and they make a healthy snack (the “dry run” for this project). Then I give them the “problem,” which is that 4 of our fictional family members will be attending a big family event. Each team needs to plan a menu that would accommodate for each of those 4 family members’ dietary needs. The menus must fit within budget constraints, and the time constraints for 1 class period. Teams present their menus to the class. The class votes on a menu for our “Big Event.” The winning team(s) send me their recipes. I go shopping, and the students get to make the menu they voted on. I never know for sure what they are going to come up with, and it’s exciting to see how many different ways my classes have been able to solve this problem. Often, students who are slow to complete traditional work are able to shine and even take leadership for their teams with this type of collaborative project.
“The Sustainability Project” is another CCA project or unit. Students learn about fast fashion and about how the way we create and consume fashion is not sustainable. They learn a little about textile science and why we don’t/can’t simply recycle used clothing. They learn about textile waste and how the ultimate end for any piece of textile is the landfill. Students participate in skill-building activities to learn to properly use the sewing equipment and follow safety standards. Then they bring in used clothing that would otherwise go to thrift stores and ultimately find its way to the landfill. Students take their used clothing items apart and turn those items into something else. I don’t give them any patterns. They figure it out. Many of my students make basic square pillows, but some of my students blow me away with the complexity of their designs. I often find this true for students who are typically not engaged in the classroom, but they wake up when they are allowed the creativity of a project.
Mr. Coray took on a challenging project this year. After many years of having taught other classes, he went back to teaching junior English, and he wanted to include Huck Finn, in spite of political conditions that struck fear into many teachers when it came to teaching this particular novel. Rather than narrowing the focus of the novel to one specific issue, Mr. Coray’s class looked at Twain’s theme of social conditioning vs. natural morality. In other words, what does society expect, vs. what do you believe? The project included a variety of skill-building activities, all required for junior English students, but when it came time to choose a project, they had already shown their skill with writing and mechanics in a variety of ways. Each student chose their own way in which social conditioning was at odds with their natural morality. And each student completed a 2-step project, meaning that they had to both research facts about their topic and then either collect data on a survey, through interviews, etc., or write letters or start some type of awareness campaign. Students could choose how to complete their two steps and how to show they had completed their two steps, whether with a poster, pamphlet, flyers, letters, annotated art portfolio, charts showing survey data, etc. The finished products he got were as varied as his students. Students researched numerous problems—many Mr. Coray would never have thought of. One of his favorite examples was from a student who spent most of the semester just trying to pass the class. When it came to this project, the student took charge. He researched the need of high schoolers to fit in with their clothing and then interviewed his mom about whether she still feels that she needs to fit in with clothing. She told him honestly how difficult and uncomfortable it is for her always to feel like she has to fit in, even in middle age. Her son, who rarely turned in assignments, was able to complete a successful project and improve his grade at the same time.
My husband and I presented our steps of personalized, project-based learning last week at our district summer conference. I was asked how we can make project-based learning not seem like “just one more thing” for teachers. With not a lot of time to think, I answered what I honestly feel, and that is this:
I must be joyful at work. Project-based learning helps my students be engaged and happy with learning, but it also gives me a lot of room for creativity, and it helps me be joyful. Because it helps me be joyful as a teacher, project-based learning is what I naturally want to do.
I recognize that my answer does not meet the needs of all teachers. So next time I post, I’ll try to share some other ways that we can make project-based learning not seem like “just one more thing.”
I love the ideas on their website. Kelsey Payne from Learner Centered Collaborative moderated the discussion, and she had sent me the questions in advance. The conversation was fantastic. If you ever want some great PD, spend some time collaborating—really listening and accepting ideas from other teachers who are embracing innovative, learner-centered practices.
During the discussion I was unable to take notes, so I’m not going to share the ideas the other teachers shared and risk misrepresenting their ideas, but because I had the questions in advance, I had taken time to write some notes for myself, and I would like to share what learner centered means to me.
Learner centered means that any student can access what is happening in my classroom, regardless of ability level, background, English-language-learner status, struggles with anxiety or ADHD or other disabilities, etc. It is fully inclusive.
Why is it important to set that tone at the beginning of the school year?
Setting the tone of learner centered is like creating an unwritten pact with my students. It tells them that I see them individually and will honor their needs. It invites them to trust me and stay with me, even when learning is hard, because I offer them a safe space to explore, to challenge themselves, and to make mistakes.
What are some concrete examples that put learners at the center right from day one?
Small things in the classroom environment let students know they are at the center right from the start. These include flexible seating options and choice in where and with whom to sit. My classroom policies and procedures are inclusive and compassionate. That includes bathroom and break policies. I don’t require students to give up a “ticket” or points or lose citizenship for going to the bathroom during my class. I tell them, “You know what your physical body needs, and I don’t. However, if you need to go, please wait until I’ve finished talking, and please let me know you’re going. After all, I’m responsible for you when you’re in my classroom.” I also let them know that if they ask to go at the same time every day (just as we’re getting to work), then that’s a different need and a different discussion. I’ve had 7th and 8th graders act surprised that I allow them so much freedom. I think I am simply allowing them their dignity and humanity. Students should be free to take care of their physical needs.
I also find that it’s beneficial to use universal design for learning. In any class I might have 5-7 students with IEP’s, and another handful with 504’s. I know that I also have students with undiagnosed anxiety, ADHD, sensory integration issues, and other needs. I have a child of my own with an IEP, and although I know that accommodations can help, I know that my child will never ask for accommodations. I have had other students with IEP’s and 504’s tell me that they do not want special accommodations, which would make them look different from their peers. Instead of making accommodations awkward and targeted to specific students, I offer the same accommodations for everyone—extended time, breaks as needed, breaking large tasks into smaller tasks as needed, using visual representations or hands-on, kinesthetic activities, collaborating with team members, etc. Students who don’t need the accommodations don’t use them. However, by making the accommodations available to all my students, I am not hurting anyone, and those who can benefit from the accommodations will benefit from them. Providing accommodations allows me to have high expectations for students while letting them know that I am on their side.
What advice do I have for others who are shifting to more learner-centered practices?
It’s ok to start small and build slowly. There’s no shame in being at a starting place. But find a place and start. Examine your practices and ask yourself questions like, how can I be more inclusive? How can I offer more choice? How can I provide multiple entry points for students to access the curriculum? And how can I allow students unlimited ways, or their own best ways, to show what they know and can do? Most of all, how can I allow students the joy of showing creativity as they also show competency? I hope I continue to look at my practices every year and keep improving in ways that bless students and honor their needs.
The last question Kelsey asked was how can administrators help? I love this question! I think administrators can send a clear message that learner centered may not be what we’ve done in the past, but we’re celebrating it now. During my first year of teaching, I was a 2nd-grade teacher at a Title I school with some strict schoolwide policies on what things should look like in a classroom. We had rules and expectations about what it looked like for students to be engaged, and those expectations included what the teacher was saying and how the students responded. In fact, observers were trained to count student responses—how many per minute, whether those were call-backs, thumbs up for understanding, or just keeping their eyes on the teacher. It wasn’t effective, and it wasn’t engaging. But it was ingrained in us. One day my students were working on a math assignment after I had taught a lesson. An administrator came in to observe, and I knew what was expected, so I re-taught the lesson with the students bored and bewildered about why we were doing the same thing again. I knew it was a waste of precious time, but I had to meet that standard. Several months later, a coach was in my classroom and had finished her lesson and started the kids on some work when her supervisor came in to observe her. I watched as the coach did exactly what I had done, repeating the lesson she had already taught. And I was saddened again to see this happen.
Fast forward seven years. I had gained a lot of experience and confidence with my teaching skills and abilities as well as my own beliefs about what I value in teaching. We were at the end of a trimester, and my students were finishing their final sewing projects. As class started, I saw my administrator enter the back of the room. “This is going to be chaos,” I thought, “But I only have time to do what I know we have to do.” I told the kids this was the last day, and I knew they were all in different places with their projects and final work. I told them that I would go quickly down the roll and tell them exactly what I needed from each of them. They listened while I quickly told each of them my expectations for the day. Then I said, “Ready, Go!”
Students jumped out of their chairs. Some got supplies. Some lined up to ask questions and get guidance. Some started working on their computers, completing missing assignments.
After 20 minutes, my administrator left. The observation report from that day was one of my best and most complimentary ever!
I would tell administrators to verbally let teachers know that they want to see learners at the center in the classroom. That will build teacher confidence in this type of teaching.
At one of the State trainings I attended last week I heard a presenter say that the best compliment a teacher can receive is to have an administrator walk into a classroom and say, “Where is the teacher?” I’ve had that happen several times as I’ve been sitting and working with one small group of students while others were working independently or in collaborative groups.
Kelsey ended the panel discussion with encouragement to be willing to show up and be brave. I didn’t catch the exact quote, but the idea was that those who are willing to show up and be brave, not perfect, are paving the way forward for others. There are days when I am honestly terrified, but I believe I’m doing what is best for students. I’m happy there are other teachers who are willing to join me.
I’ve spent the last 3 days at state Career and Technical
Education conferences. These are always some of my favorite teacher trainings
of the year. The conferences are a chance to network, spend time with old
friends, meet new friends, and participate in engaging, hands-on activities we
can replicate in our own classrooms. Not surprisingly, we heard a lot this year
about PCBL—Personalized, Competency-Based Learning, which is one of my favorite
teaching topics. I’m happy that more teachers are getting involved in
personalizing, which I truly believe helps all students succeed.
Probably my favorite workshop this year was “Sewing is Not About Sewing,” taught by Kayla DeCoursey. This was a fabulous, engaging, hands-on, personalized, project-based workshop that highlighted many vital, 21st-Century workplace skills. Kayla described how she designed this workshop as a rebuttal to a fellow teacher who said that teaching sewing was no longer valuable or relevant. She pointed out the skills students learn from sewing, such as visual-spatial awareness and reasoning, small-motor skills, measurement, and creativity. I would add to those skills the skills of problem-solving, grit, endurance, critical thinking, engineering design, and proper use of tools and care of materials, as well as the potential for collaboration on projects with others.
Collaboration, communication, dependability, responsibility,
respect, empathy, cultural awareness and acceptance, creativity, resilience,
grit, problem-solving, and critical thinking could arguably be skills that are needed
in the workplace and in life more than any of the other content we teach.
Information is abundant. Students can find it anywhere. What they do with that
information will make the difference between solving difficult world problems
and sinking under unsustainable practices of our society.
How does Kayla foster these skills in her classroom, and how
did she engage teachers in using these skills? She set out 32 half-size dress
forms and let us go to work. We had each brought a yard of fabric and our own
creativity. We had 3 hours to draw, drape, and construct a dress from scratch.
Every teacher met this challenge from a different skill level, just as every
student would in the classroom. There were teachers who didn’t want to accept
the full challenge, and that was ok for a teacher workshop, but Kayla doesn’t
let her young students off the hook. She shows them some drawing and draping
techniques, and they keep going until they figure it out.
I found the challenge instantly engaging and wanted to put my best into it. That’s the magic of personalization with project-based learning. It wakes up students’ imaginations and tells them it’s ok to play, to get creative, and to push themselves at the same time. I drew a sleeveless dress with contrasting waistband, circle skirt, and high-low hem. Yes, the bodice is lined. Yes, the seams are finished. And yes, I had the dress sewn and hemmed before the three hours were up. But just before.
Friday I had the kind of teaching experience that makes pre-service teachers want to teach and keeps in-service teachers in teaching.
On Tuesday I learned I was getting a new student–a refugee student who speaks no English. I immediately felt my own inadequacy as a teacher, but I tried to brush that aside with ideas for how I could include this student in my classroom and help him participate in our lessons.
If I’m honest, Wednesday wasn’t stellar. I see my students every other day and decided I could make Friday better. I planned to incorporate a Power Point with pictures into the lesson plan, and then I used the translator feature in Microsoft to translate the text from my Power Point into the student’s native language. I know that electronic translators have flaws, but I figured this was the best hope I had of communicating with my new student, who, by the way, is pleasant, alert, bright, and trying his best to make sense of his new world.
On Friday, I put up the Power Point with an explanation in English and the student’s language explaining to the class why I was using this additional teaching method. I told the class I wanted the whole class included in our conversations. I explained that the translation I was using was not perfect and might at times be confusing for our new friend, but it was the best we had, and we needed to try it.
My classes are currently mid-way through a project-based-learning unit I call “The Big Event.” They start by researching a variety of medical conditions that affect diet. We learn about MyPlate as well as safe food handling and kitchen safety procedures. The students make a healthy snack in the lab, and then I introduce the problem: We’re planning a large family party for a group of fictional family members, several of whom have specific medical conditions. The students must plan a menu that meets the needs of those family members as well as other criteria. On the last day of the unit, they get to cook some of the items from their chosen menu.
On Friday, the goal was for each team to make a list of healthy foods their fictional family member can and should eat, as well as a list of foods that person should avoid.
I told the class with the new student that even though I typically expected nothing more than a presentation of a list from each team, for this class, I was hoping they would also include pictures, which might help our new student feel connected to the content.
That’s when the magic happened. As teams started to research and build their lists, they began to pull me aside with questions like this: “Mrs. Coray, can we use the translator feature and make Power Points with pictures and translations of what we are talking about?” The whole class was a buzz of excitement. I was showing some teams how to use the translator feature in Microsoft, and other students were showing me how to make it better, and there was this whole-class, synergistic, collaborative effort that brought me almost to tears! Each team seemed eager to include their new friend in the conversation.
Our new student’s own team went even further. They pulled out their computers, pulled up translator apps, and began passing their computers back and forth as a way to communicate. One girl on the team with artistic talent drew elaborate pictures as they made their list in regard to their fictional family member, Uncle Jake, who was recently diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. As the team made their list, their art specialist drew a page depicting soda, candy, and baked goods, and another page with fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and foods made from whole grains.
I got an even bigger surprise when that team asked me if they could use the translator app to allow their new friend to speak when their team presented their list to the class. They would have him read his part in his native language with another student standing by as interpreter to read that same part in English. It was fantastic!
The team presentations were amazing, and more than I could ever have hoped for!
Just before the bell rang, one student on the new student’s team asked if he could also use the translator app next time we’re in the foods lab as a way to help his new friend participate with cooking.
Junior high students are often careless with their belongings, and I find all kinds of things left after class in my classroom. They never take papers with them if the papers do not affect their grade. I noticed as the bell rang how those beautiful drawings were left behind on the table. I also noticed how my new student carefully scooped up those drawings and tucked them in with his things.
I hear teachers say that they don’t want to change to standards-based or competency-based grading because it’s easier to keep doing what they’ve always done. Competency-based grading has simplified my grading process in a way that saves me hours of work! I never have to count points—a point for this, 2 points for that, ½ point off for “this one little thing missing.” Competency-based grading isn’t really about the points; it’s about the student’s ability to show what they know and what they can do. I can see competency very quickly when I am using a rubric. Often a quick glance is enough to give me the information I am looking for, especially if the assignment is visual. If the work is research-based and designed to show critical thinking and use of relevant sources, I spend more time on grading, but competency-based grading is still faster than adding up individual points for each little thing.
Students also know what to expect with competency-based grading because I try to be specific with a rubric. If they don’t score 4 points on the first try, I give them feedback offering them an opportunity to improve their work.
Let’s take the example with the following objective from FCS
I can effectively use fashion as a means of expression (Strand 3, Standard 4).
The assignment itself looks like the one below. Although my own fashion drawings lack the seemingly effortless style and movement of professional design drawings, I love to draw clothing, and I can capture clothing construction details, so I feel these drawings are a helpful guide when students are unfamiliar with design drawings.
“Fashion as Communication and Expression” Canvas Assignment
After explaining the assignment to the class, I point out
the rubric and go over the rubric with them so that they know exactly what to
As the students submit their work, I give them feedback
based on the rubric, so that they always have the opportunity to improve.
Here are four samples of student work matching the scores of 1, 2, 3, and 4 on the rubric.
This student had a good start–but the work is only that–a start.
The second assignment sample is rushed and low in quality. However, the student did make effort to include at least some design details that show personality.
This student work shows an understanding of fashion as expression while still lacking professional detail.
The final sample shows high-quality, professional details with accessories, closures, movement, etc. This student has clearly mastered the idea of fashion as expression.
Is there a way that you could simplify your teaching practice by using a 4-point, competency-based grading scale?